Wellington, December 6, 2019
There is an element of the proverbial curate’s egg in the government’s proposed recreational cannabis regime. It is good in parts, and not so good in others, but overall leaves a somewhat underdone impression.
For a start, it is good that the government has spelled out the basis of a comprehensive regime to govern a recreational cannabis market, should New Zealanders vote for it at next year’s referendum.
The First Problem
But herein lies the first problem. Although the government has attempted to spell out a recreational cannabis regime in detail to provide certainty and clarity in advance of the referendum vote, the legislation it is proposing will not be introduced to Parliament until and unless there is a positive vote for change in the referendum.
That means there is no guarantee, whatever government is in power in 2021, that the legislation will be introduced as announced now, or immediately after the election, or even at all. Nor does it ensure that it will not be substantially amended as a result of a select committee process.
So, the outcome may end up nothing like what people thought they were voting for.
A more practical problem is what happens between the referendum and the passage of the legislation a few months later? It will be a messy hiatus.
Will the Police apply the current law during that time, or just ignore it?
How will those currently enjoying a puff in the park or at the beach react when they realise they will not will be able to do so under the new law? That proposes making smoking cannabis in public places illegal. So it will actually be more restrictive than what they are used to. How will the Police react to the new law? Whatever happens, it is likely to be a very messy interlude.
A preferable, clearer and far more certain outcome would have been for the government to have legislated all the details of the recreational cannabis scheme before the referendum, so that people know exactly what they were voting for.
If the referendum passes, the new law could take effect immediately.
That way, there would be no messy transition, and everyone would know exactly where they stand from the day after the referendum.
It is hard to fathom why the government did not pursue this option, unless New Zealand First had made it clear it did not want to be seen as supporting a recreational cannabis regime by voting for enabling legislation before the referendum.
If that is the case, then it is hard to see that Party, should it still be in Parliament after 2020 – supporting the relevant legislation then, thus adding more uncertainty.
On the whole, the actual regulatory regime proposed is surprisingly conservative, which should assuage some of the likely public concern.
However, it is not without some problems.
The first is one of context.
The cannabis regime is harsher than that for alcohol, tobacco and vaping.
For example, it is currently legal to purchase alcohol, tobacco or vaping products at the age of 18, yet the government is proposing, for what it says are sound public health reasons, an age limit of 20 years for cannabis.
In so doing, is it, undoubtedly unwittingly, risking making drinking, smoking and vaping more attractive to 18-20 year olds than cannabis consumption, and is that a sensible move?
Then there are the issues around the amounts of cannabis one can possess.
The 14 gram daily purchase limit, allegedly the equivalent of 42 cannabis joints, seems extremely high, and listening to the Justice Minister’s explanations of how the limit was arrived at, to be based on pretty flimsy evidence.
Presumably, this matter will be tidied up and the figure reduced as a result of the round of inter-party discussions now getting underway.
If not, it risks becoming a major distracting point of controversy during the coming debate.
Associated with this is the issue of quality control for cannabis plants grown for personal use. The Minister says that the new Cannabis Regulatory Authority will set quality standards as to potency and risk for manufactured products to protect the public safety.
That is a good and sensible move, to be applauded, but how will the same standards be applied to plants grown at home?
Unless the origin of every single plant grown at home is checked and verified, which is absolutely impossible to achieve, there can be no guarantee on this score.
Our drug laws are past their use-by date.
Significant change is required, and the referendum process provides the opportunity to initiate that. But the heavy weather the government has gone through so far raises concerns that this could be yet another instance where its bold plans fall down on the implementation details.
It seems to be placing all its hopes on the referendum passing.
But what if it does not? We also need to know what the government’s plans are should the referendum fail. Will, the current unsatisfactory situation be allowed to just drift on; or, does the government have something else altogether in mind? Whatever, the public needs to know both sides of the equation, so that it can weigh up all the options and make a balanced decision, come the referendum.
The government deserves credit for taking a serious approach to the issue and seeking to engage the public in its resolution. However, its ponderous approach so far means there can as yet sadly be only limited confidence that it will succeed.
Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from 1999 to 2017. He lives in Wellington.